The Bridge Interviews
The Cotswold Wildlife Park & Gardens
Last month’s Bridge interview was with Alison Hughes of Burford VIC who told us something about the experience of looking after some of the many visitors to this area. Continuing the theme, this month we met Reggie Heyworth, the owner of one of West Oxfordshire’s biggest visitor attractions, the Cotswold Wildlife Park & Gardens.
The park was started by Reggie’s father, John Heyworth. John had inherited the 3,000 acre Bradwell Grove estate from his grandfather in 1948 when he was 23, his father having been killed in action in North Africa in 1941. Because of heavy death duties he leased the manor house and gardens to the local health authority for 20 years for use as a mental hospital. When the lease expired in 1969 he decided to open a wildlife park and for this purpose he borrowed £40,000 (an enormous amount in those days). He had been very interested in animals since he was a small boy, and this gave him an opportunity to indulge his passion. He employed Brian Sinfield (now owner of the well-known art gallery in Burford) as the first curator and only a year later the park welcomed its first visitors on Good Friday 1970.
The manor house was in very bad condition by this time and needed reroofing, treating for dry rot and various other repairs. All the infrastructure for the park such as toilets and restaurant had to be installed. There were battles with the council about rates and the oil price shock in 1972 caused an economic crisis. The park nearly went under several times in the 1970s and John had to keep putting more money into it, but somehow it survived. Eventually John was able to sell the land on which Bradwell Village now stands and with the proceeds could pay off the park’s overdraft.
Reggie was nine when the park opened and found it very exciting to grow up there. He was interested in animals from an early age. Influences included reading Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, the book and film Born Free, the television programmes of Johnny Morris and the vet series Daktari. He and his three older sisters spent long hours clearing brambles around the lake and putting them on a bonfire. After Eton and Oxford he worked in the City for S.G. Warburg for seven years after which he went to Tanzania to work for a company providing camping safari holidays. He took a 90% cut in salary to do this but says this did not matter as the cost of living in Tanzania was so low and there was very little to spend money on anyway. Next he worked for the Tanzanian government for three years on a project supported by the Frankfurt Zoological Society for protecting rhinos. The 1980s, he explains, were a very bad time for poaching and the government finally decided to do something about it; the black rhinos were at risk of becoming extinct. Reggie spent three years running a conservation programme in the north of the country. This gave him a fascination with rhinos and a knowledge of animal conservation, both of which were invaluable when he joined the wildlife park.
This happened in 1995. His father was then 70 and was diagnosed with Parkinsons which made his life increasingly difficult over the years until his death in 2012. Reggie took over the day to day running of the park. His father was still living there so they met almost every day and discussed any important issues. One major decision was to place more emphasis on the gardens. Both Reggie’s parents were keen gardeners so they made the gardens much more of a feature. They appointed a new head gardener, Tim Miles, who had previously worked at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall and is a Royal Horticultural Society judge and committee member. The gardens previously contained more formal bedding but Tim changed them to a more informal style with planting inspired by the animals nearby. Other zoos have cut back on the horticultural side but Reggie and Tim have created a must-see garden in its own right. This is reflected in the fact that the official name of the park was changed to add “& Gardens”.
Animal care, safety and stimulation are all important and the habitats are regularly reviewed to ensure that their size and condition is suitable for the animal. Various “treats” are hidden (such as a trout in an iceblock for the otters and crickets in a rolled up kitchen roll for the monkeys) to give an opportunity to replicate indigenous conditions and provide mental exercise.
What are the most memorable events? Getting the lion cubs there was one. Giraffes were another, after careful planning of a suitable home for them. This coincided with his parents’ 60th wedding anniversary in June 2010 and the 40th anniversary of the opening of the park. The birth of the first baby rhino in 2013 was something he had dreamt of for 40 years.
The number of staff at the park varies according to the season but at its peak is around 150. Of these around 25 look after the animals and the equivalent of 12 full timers work in the gardens. The rest look after the visitors selling tickets, running the restaurant and so on. Last year they had 410,000 visitors – over 3,000 a day for the whole of August – compared with 375,000 in 2015. Reggie says the increase is partly attributable to the popularity of “staycationing” and a dry summer which benefited many attractions. Another factor is the growth in the population within striking distance of the park, especially those aged from three to 13 who are a key demographic for zoos. People stay longer, too. Once they used to have two peaks, with morning arrivals leaving at lunchtime and others coming in the afternoon, but now many stay all day (the park’s website recommends allowing at least four hours). Reggie has also noticed that, because of the park’s central location, people come here for family get-togethers with cars arriving from different directions. Yet another factor is what he calls the “Attenborough effect” – the enormous popularity of nature programmes on television encourages people to go out and look at animals.
A very successful feature of the park is the “Keeper for the Day” scheme. Under this you can pay to spend a day working behind the scenes at the park and finding out at first hand about the animals and how they are looked after. There are versions of this for teenagers and children as young as seven. Participants often say they find this a life-changing experience.
Reggie is a great believer that people respond well when treated with respect. The park is not full of signs telling visitors what they should or shouldn’t do. In general they are very nice and well-behaved. They don’t cause damage or drop litter or taunt the animals. There are some funny moments. On one occasion the high-decibel cries of the amorous giant tortoises attracted quite a crowd. One small boy piped up asking what they were doing. An expectant hush ensued until his quick-thinking father explained that one was climbing on top of the other so that he could get a better view! There have been many breeding successes and the baby rhino and lion cubs in particular have been very popular and photogenic.
The park is very much a family business. Reggie’s mother still lives on the site. His sisters live elsewhere but they are a useful sounding board. If you have grown up at the park you have an instinct for what will work and what won’t, he says. He has three step-children and numerous nieces and nephews. Perhaps one day one of these will take over from Reggie? Who knows?
Are there particular plans for the future? Nothing big, says Reggie. Nature is very beautiful. People today can spend as much as 40% of their waking hours looking at screens. He would like them to look up and see the wonders of nature around them. If the park has had a real impact on 1% of the visitors for the last 47 years, that amounts to a huge number of people. So his aim is simply to create something very beautiful for people to see. There are three generations of visitors: children, who in turn, will take their children and later their grandchildren. There is always something new to see. There are no gimmicky attractions at the park such as dodgem cars, and Reggie recognises that attempts to be contemporary can date quickly. A park that themed itself after the TV character Mr Blobby closed a few years later when he went out of fashion. As he says, “Don’t do what is old; do what is never old”. The animals are the stars of the show.
There is an interesting book which tells the story of the park. Rhinos on the Lawn and the people who made the Cotswold Wildlife Park was written Matthew Jones and published in 2012. It has a foreword by David Cameron who helped the park in various ways, including when dealing with the bureaucratic requirements for importing two female white rhinos. One of them was named Nancy after his daughter. The book is on sale from the park gift shop, the Madhatter Bookshop or on line from http://www.cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk